COTTON, Minn. – Except for his Norwegian surname, Mark “Sparky” Stensaas hardly meets the image of a Minnesota Iron Ranger. Clad in cargo shorts, knee-high rubber boots and a soft-brimmed Tilley hat, Stensaas has no iron ore in his bloodline, and he possesses only a passing interest in the extensive taconite mines that have defined life in northeast Minnesota since the late 19th century.
Stensaas, 50 years old and a husband and father of two, is seeking another high-value resource found in this part of Minnesota’s Arrowhead region, which extends from the northwest shore of Lake Superior to the Canadian border.
His prize is rare birds – northern owls, grosbeaks, redpolls, crossbills, warblers, boreal chickadees and cuckoos – that can be found only in a few places in North America, among them the 300-square-mile Sax-Zim Bog of St. Louis County.
Since its “discovery” in 1963 by a traveling Lutheran pastor with enough bird sense to know that the juvenile northern hawk owls he saw from the roadside were extremely rare south of the Canadian border, Sax-Zim has grown from an little-known birding outpost into one of the world’s premier hotspots for winter bird watching.
Sax-Zim draws thousands of visitors a year from as far as Europe and Asia, according to the non-profit Friends of Sax-Zim Bog.
Stensaas, the group’s part-time executive director and one of a handful of local guides, flashes a knowing smile when asked about the bog’s international appeal. “It’s because owls are sexy,” he says.
And the Sax-Zim Bog is one of the only places in the world where a person can see multiple rare species in a single visit. “If you have a chance to see a couple of great grays, a few northern hawk owls, and the possibility of a boreal owl, that’s a dream, man,” Stensaas says.
According to Audubon Minnesota, the bog supports as many as 240 avian species, including migrants and breeding birds. The Minnesota Department of Natural Resources has designated Sax-Zim an “important birding area” and in 2012 awarded nearly $30,000 in grant funding to aid in its long-term conservation.
As a bog, Sax-Zim also represents one of Minnesota’s most overlooked and underappreciated water resources.
While many of Minnesota’s lakes and rivers offer postcard visuals and ready access to swimmers, anglers and paddlers, places like Sax-Zim are harder to see and even harder to love.
A bog’s defining characteristic, besides a persistent dank wetness, is the accumulation of dead organic matter, or peat, atop which grows sponge-like Sphagnum moss, sedges and other adapted plants and animals.
In summer, bogs can actually repel humans due to their combined heat and humidity, insects and impenetrable vegetation, not to mention the underlying soils that seem to rise and fall underfoot as if walking on an exhaling beast.
For those brave enough to venture into a Minnesota bog between June and October, prepare to navigate ankle-deep water hazards and tread across ground that is neither terra nor firma.
Patchwork Ownership Places Sanctuary at Risk
To the casual viewer, the region looks pancake flat and is bisected by a handful of time-worn county roads, some of them adjoining sedge meadows and even hay fields. But the area known as Sax-Zim is actually a composite of habitat types. Principally a peat bog, the region is interspersed with spruce and tamarack forest, swamp shrub and alder thickets, with a smattering of white cedar and aspen trees on higher, drier ground.
The varying habitat types also reflects a patchwork of private and public ownership, raising the prospect that portions of the bog could be degraded or destroyed by activities such as logging, mining, grazing and other resource-intensive land uses.
One of the region’s largest mining pits, a massive tailings disposal area known as the Eveleth Taconite Tailings Basin, lies within 10 miles of the bog. Some fear polluted drainage from the tailings could flow toward the bog via the St. Louis River watershed or a series of small lakes.
And United Taconite LLC is proposing to expand the existing tailings basin by 1,300 acres under a 30-year-old federal permit, which remains under review by the Army Corps of Engineers.
Some environmental groups, including the Center for Biological Diversity, the Sierra Club and the National Wildlife Federation, have argued that the Eveleth facility has already damaged or destroyed too many wetlands. They argue that the Army Corps should do a much more thorough evaluation of the site’s impacts before allowing an expansion of the tailings ponds.
A more immediate concern, according to Stensaas, is the cutting of timber from the bog. This process is overseen by the St. Louis County Land and Minerals Department, which directly manages up to 100,000 acres of tax-forfeited land within Sax-Zim, including some prime birding areas.
Mark Weber, the St. Louis County Land and Minerals Commissioner, said in an e-mail that roughly 20 to 30 percent of the bog’s tax-forfeited acres contain commercially viable timber, and the primary targeted species are aspen on the higher areas and black spruce and tamarack in wetter areas. The County also allows for the “topping” of spruce trees, which involves removing and selling the top sections of the conically shaped trees for winter holiday displays.
Weber says that while the department works with groups such as Friends of the Sax-Zim Bog on projects that meet both economic and non-economic goals, the department “is charged with protecting the variety of benefits provided” by tax-forfeited lands. Those priorities include “providing forest products and financial returns to the county and local community.”
But the bog’s greatest value – both economic and ecologic – may well be its distinct wetland character. Last year, Ecosystem Investment Partners, a Maryland-based wetlands mitigation banking firm, purchased nearly 3,600 acres of property within Sax-Zix to add to its existing Mississippi and Superior Wetland Mitigation Bank.
While it remains unclear when and to what degree the bog site will be restored, EIP has made clear that there is significant demand for wetland mitigation credits in the region “due to the expansion and development of large-scale metal mining in the Mesabi Range of northeastern Minnesota.”
Such mining activities, if expanded without concern for the area’s broader wildlife values, could be a detriment to both birds and birders, who today come like pilgrims from around the world with hopes of sighting or photographing an elusive northern hawk owl, hoary redpoll or white-winged crossbill, the kinds of species considered essential to “life lists” that all serious birders keep.
World-Class ‘Irruptions’ Draw Pilgrims from Near and Far
In addition to northern hawk owls, among the most sought-after species for birders and wildlife photographers include the great gray owl, whose immense size, day-hunting habits and deep-set yellow eyes make it one of the most admired of all winged animals.
In the winter of 2004-05, Minnesota experienced one of the largest documented influxes of great grays when an estimated 5,000 individuals moved south from Canada, many ending up in the Sax-Zim Bog. This event added to the area’s already impressive suite of wintering boreal birds that had put the bog on the international birding map.
The birds came under a condition known as a “winter irruption,” when populations surge in specific areas on the edge of their normal range, usually due to a food shortage or other changes to their primary habitat. In the case of owls, a shortage of small mammalian prey – principally voles – can drive thousands of birds into new territories, if only for one season.
That kind of irruption event can send bird watchers into an equally rare migratory frenzy, as birders scour online travel sites and burn up precious frequent flyer miles to get places like Sax-Zim before the birds return to their primary ranges.
The passion surrounding such birding sites was captured in the 2004 book by journalist Mark Obmascik, “The Big Year: A Tale of Man, Nature and Fowl Obsession,” which in 2011 became a Hollywood comedy starring Jack Black, Steve Martin and Owen Wilson.
Sax-Zim gets more than a passing mention in both versions of the story, including the scene featuring disgruntled international birding champion Sandy Komito (whose character was adapted by Owen Wilson in the film version), who toils away one Christmas Eve in nearby Duluth after a fruitless search through Sax-Zim Bog for a great gray owl.
In an e-mail from his home in Denver, Obmascik called Sax-Zim “a world renowned ‘Station of the Cross’ for birders” that offers “one-stop shopping for some elusive northern species.”
Chris Wood, a project leader with the Cornell Laboratory of Ornithology in Ithaca, N.Y., who has made an estimated 40 pilgrimages to Sax-Zim, describes the bog as “justifiably famous as one of the very best places to see great gray owls and northern hawk owls in winter.”
He added that Sax-Zim and other habitat pockets within the owls’ southernmost range in Minnesota provide “a suite of habitat” that owls and other migratory species need for breeding, nesting and foraging.
“The different habitats alone increase diversity,” Wood says.
As part of the ongoing effort to preserve those habitats and further elevate Sax-Zim’s profile among birders, the Friends of Sax-Zim Bog recently acquired 40 acres of black spruce/tamarack habitat in the heart of the bog. It also built a birders’ welcome center along Owl Avenue, where it will host events and provide a staging area for birding tours that happen almost daily during the winter months.
The welcome center sits on land leased from the county land and minerals department,
and its costs were covered by private donations as well as a $12,500 grant from the
Iron Range Resources and Rehabilitation Board, a state-funded agency dedicated to helping communities in the state’s historic mining region diversify their economies.
“We’re grateful for every penny we can get,” Stensaas says. “We aren’t in the business of rebuilding mining economies, but we think we’ve got something just as good to offer.”
Weber, the lands commissioner, said the department “recognizes that activities such as birding have a viable economic value for the local community” and that the new welcome center, along with the possibility of new birding trails, represent a “win-win situation” for both birders and the county.